Five minutes into the meeting, I was left thinking that, somewhere on the outskirts of London, a scientist must have found a dimensional rift that had transported me into some dystopian satire. A place you might see in one of those scarily compelling dramas set in bare rooms featuring grey characters intent on beating the protagonist down.
On one side were myself, my wife, and my son’s (first-rate) special educational needs teacher. On the other, a representative from the local council. Between us was a mediator (who had, for some reason, been hauled down to London from Yorkshire).
The “mediation” we were attending concerned an application for an assessment for an education, health and care plan (EHCP) for my son, who has high-functioning autism.
In the case of conditions such as autism, EHCPs really matter. They spell out the assistance and support a child is entitled to and extend through their adolescence and early adulthood.
Without one, you may not get much at all. I was once a school governor with responsibility for special needs – the school worked hard at it, too. But it was increasingly having to concentrate what resources it had for special needs kids on those with EHCPs. That might help to explain why applications for them are rising: at the beginning of the year, the BBC reported a 70 per cent increase between 2014-15 and 2017-18.
In our son’s case, two highly trained teachers plus a psychiatrist were of the opinion that an EHCP assessment was warranted.
But the council’s “panel” demurred. As anyone who walks into the jungle of an EHCP application will rapidly realise, “no” is the default response. We weren’t given any reasons: just a slip of paper listing some names we’d never heard, including a paediatrician who had never seen or spoken to our son nor to anyone who had.
The council representative seemed to have decided that their role was simply to read out those reasons – a version of which we’d already managed to squeeze out of the council after kicking up a big fuss – and that this would be enough to make us go away. Quite what was the point of the mediator (and their expensive train fare) I wasn’t entirely sure.
The sense of the surreal was amplified when it occurred to me that all this time and effort had been spent just to say “no”, and not even to the EHCP itself – simply to an assessment for one.
In theory, the threshold to be eligible for an assessment is very low: it requires only that the child may need more provision than can be provided by their school. A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism said that for kids like my son, councils should “carry out EHCP assessments ... when they are requested”.
In reality, the process is far less straightforward. To even begin to tackle the special needs jungle requires several machetes. Indiana Jones might have struggled, and I’m talking the young Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
My wife and I had gone armed. We’d called upon organisations like IPSEA, the Independent Provider of Special Education Advice, and SOS!SEN. We had papers. Some case law that I thought might just serve as our ace.
Fool, fool, fool. The council had also come prepared. Local authorities are the Diego Maradonas of these things: you think you’ve got them then, whoosh, they’ve netted a “hand of god”.
It’s worth stating that the number of appeals are also rising. The same BBC report found they had doubled over four years. Some 40 per cent were conceded before even reaching a tribunal.
To tackle what it calls the special educational needs and disabilities (Send) crisis, IPSEA has published a manifesto calling for greater accountability, more joined-up working, improved special needs support and, crucially, increased funding.
I sympathise with local authorities in one respect: they are in hock to central government which denies them the funding they need.
But that doesn’t excuse their deploying what they have to frustrate, obfuscate and wriggle out of their responsibilities. It doesn’t excuse the £34m local councils collectively blew on defending Send appeals in 2017-18 alone.
Of course, all of this is self-defeating: as challenges faced by Send kids get more complicated and expensive, the longer they are left unaddressed.
Our mediation ended with an agreement that our son’s application should be resubmitted. But I fear there’ll be more bruising battles before the thing is finally settled. A crumb of comfort is that 91 per cent of autism-related EHCP appeals are won.